Beyond the DEA's Presence in Suriname

(International Relations and Security Network, 15/08/2006)


Two agents with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arrived in Paramaribo, Suriname over the weekend of 29 July to establish a permanent presence in one of South America's most overlooked countries. After over a decade of playing host to regular round-trip shipments of guns and drugs, Suriname has earned itself the distinction of becoming another battlefront for the DEA in the organization's so-called War on Drugs in South America. DEA agents will find working by the book in Suriname is an impossible task if they intend on making any progress to undermine smuggling operations well entrenched in the backwater Caribbean nation.


Working as police attachés out of the US Embassy in Paramaribo, DEA agents will have no jurisdiction to make arrests or engage in intelligence gathering activities without the expressed permission of Surinamese officials. But this is a public posture, maintained to show a respect for state sovereignty and the local authority in Suriname. An off-the-record modus operandi of bending the rules complements an attitude that adheres to Machiavellian ideology, and is what will likely dictate a great deal of the DEA's operations in Suriname. The DEA has learned through its experiences in Colombia and Brazil that agreements signed on paper rarely follow through to actual practice in the field.


Joe Toft was the DEA's Bogota station chief in the early 1990s, when US and Colombian officials were on the hunt for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. He will admit that during those days, corruption was so severe that he booked two helicopters for nearly every mission. One was loaded with Colombian agents the DEA believed had been compromised by Escobar's network. It was sent on a dummy errand. The other helicopter, loaded mostly with DEA agents and trustworthy personnel, was bound for the real mission's destination.


This healthy dose of paranoia, as well as excellent work by tried and true Colombian officials, eventually led to Escobar's death. But the process was littered with shattered egos and accusations that pointed fingers at Toft and other DEA agents though to have over-extended their "adviser" role.


Years after Escobar's death, the Brazilian magazine Carta Capital published an interview that underlined the DEA's confidential operations in Brazil. A Brazilian spy, known only as Amadeu, operated an export service that catered to Brazilian organized crime and exported Colombian cocaine to Europe. The man had a long history of working in the export business and when the DEA learned that he had some loose connections with a jailed Brazilian smuggler, DEA agents working in Brazil coerced him into employment offering a cash payment of US$3,000 a month.


When the Brazilian Federal Police learned about the DEA running a Brazilian spy in Brazil, there was an outcry of illegal operations and an affront to Brazilian sovereignty. Amadeu's work in bringing down the so called Suri-Cartel, a criminal enterprise that used Suriname as the pivot point for smuggling between Colombia and Brazil, served as proof that cowboy field operations often deliver.


Leonardo Dias Mendonça was considered the sole leader of the Suri-Cartel until his conviction in 2003. He ran a highly organized and integrated criminal enterprise based in the southern reaches of Brazil's Amazonian state of Pará. It included a built-in money laundering system tied into businesses that serviced the gold mining industry in southern Pará, French Guiana and Suriname; an air-taxi service that maintained a small fleet of twin-engine propeller aircraft; and a communication system that organized the delivery of guns and ammunition to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The process of uncovering the trail that connected this operation from Brazil, through Suriname, and into Colombia has built substantial evidence that in part was a strong argument for an increased, and permanent, DEA presence in Suriname.


Before Mendonça was a smuggler, he operated a service center for Brazilian gold mines. When the business in these mines dried-up in 1992, Mendonça invested in gold mines that were opening up in Suriname at that time. Along with Mendonça, thousands of Brazilians migrated to Suriname to work the mines in Caribbean country's southeastern forests, a short flight from the Brazilian port town of Belem, located at the mouth of the Amazon river.


After a series of frequent trips to Paramaribo, Mendonça met a Portuguese interpreter for Surinamese ex-president Desi Bouterse, who was involved in his own smuggling operations. Bouterse was later convicted in 1999. Mendonça had already begun planning a smuggling operation, but needed the permission of Bouterse to run clandestine flights through Suriname into Colombia. Mendonça, Bouterse and Melvin Lindscheer, the chief of the Surinamese secret service, made an arrangement whereby Mendonça would smuggle Colombian cocaine through Suriname into Brazil. The men agreed that each kilo of cocaine would be worth some US$2,500 and based the division of earnings on that benchmark price. The first operation was concluded in early 1993. Soon after the Suri-Cartel was born.


Beginning in 1993, regular flights passed from Suriname to Colombia loaded with weapons and ammunition. The planes would land in Barranco Minas, a small village in eastern Colombia near the Venezuelan border. It was a town controlled by the FARC's 16th front and run by Tomas Molina, the FARC leader who pioneered a cocaine for weapons and ammunition barter system he developed with Mendonça and perfected with the well known Brazilian criminal Luis Fernando da Costa, or Freddy Seashell.


Through its clandestine work with Amadeu, coordination with DEA agents in Colombia, and intelligence gathered by listening posts operated by the Brazilian Federal Police, the DEA eventually learned that Mendonça operated three to four flights a month.


Each flight would leave Brazil with a load of weapons, pass through Suriname, and eventually return from Colombia with up to 200 kilos of pure cocaine. Some of this cocaine would enter Bouterse's network and flow from Suriname into the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. The DEA's Brazilian spy, Amadeu, would also receive some cocaine, which he would package with coffee, sugar or rice, and prepare for export.


When the Carta Capital article hit the Brazilian public in late 2000, voices were raised, fingers were pointed. Brazilian sovereignty had been disrespected. But with the help of the DEA and the unorthodox operations carried out by DEA agents, Brazilian Federal Police agents dismantled the Suri-Cartel.


Until 2006, the DEA did not have a permanent presence in Suriname, likely due to the corruption within the Bouterse family that ran the Caribbean nation through the 1980s and 1990s. Suriname today is just as much a corridor for illicit traffic as it was before, but new organizations and actors run the trade. Both Mendonça and Bouterse are out of the picture, and Mendonça's understudy, Luis Fernando da Costa, has also been captured. With a permanent presence in Suriname, the DEA may be able to prevent the organization of another massive organization like the Suri-Cartel, but both DEA agents and the Surinamese officials know that while a public show of respect for sovereignty is important, sometimes bending laws and a little disrespect is what it takes to get the job done.